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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 6 March 2014

Neil Hannon: May Songs

Neil Hannon is the founding member of - and driving force behind - The Divine Comedy. His latest project involves making music for In May, an immersive multimedia play which is being perfomed as part of Glasgow's Behaviour Festival in March.
Lorna Irvine

Never one to shy away from a challenge, founding member of The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon’s latest project may be his most powerful yet: setting music to an immersive multimedia play as part of Glasgow’s prestigious Behaviour festival. German artist and playwright Frank Beucheler’s In May, translated by writer Tim Clarke (and based on a close friend of Beucheler’s real experience of living day to day with cancer) interweaves the main character’s illness with the emotional responses of those who loved him best, including Anna, the lover who survives him, and his family. The Ligeti Quartet play Hannon’s arrangements in an all-encompassing, poignant piece of theatre examining the resilience of the human spirit.

We briefly caught up with Hannon to ask how scoring for theatre differs from making albums.

How did the collaboration for In May come about?

Do you know, it’s almost too long ago to recall how it began. You’d need to ask Frank and Tim why they came to me. All I remember is having a very pleasant coffee with them at the South Bank in London overlooking the Thames many moons ago. Frank outlined the idea to me. I thought, well that’s pretty bloody depressing – I’ll do it!

You have done many collaborations before. How did this compare? Was it more of a challenge writing music with theatre and visuals in mind?

If I’m to be completely honest I didn’t write with theatre or visuals in mind at all. I just took Frank’s very excellent and emotive words (ably translated by Tim Clarke) and set to the sort of music I thought would intensify the emotions. You’re right, I do a lot of collaborations these days, which is odd for someone who’s not intrinsically collaborative. I guess I just occasionally like the sound of someone’s idea – they’re usually ideas that I would never have myself.

I could imagine you writing and staging a musical, a la Jacques Demy. Is there a possibility of this in the not too distant future?

Well, I’m glad you could imagine that because I certainly can’t. After all, you have your very own Jacques Demy in one Stuart Murdoch (Belle and Sebastian). I’m neither clever enough, interested enough in the dramatic arts, or practical enough to bring a whole show together. I will, however, happily write some rollicking tunes for everyone to sing.

Has the piece made everyone involved re-assess their relationships with loved ones?

Speaking for myself, I have never been in the situation of any of the protagonists in the show, and I find it impossible to fully imagine how it would feel. I truly hope I never shall. The piece definitely makes me glad I’m alive, but that’s as much because if I were dead I wouldn’t be able to write music. That statement will appear horribly flippant to some people. It’s not. The main character in In May is dying horribly young, but he lives the final months of his life so intensely, and in such a state of self awareness that by the time of his dying he is full of joy and acceptance. To my mind this is better than eighty years of worrying about it.

Are The Divine Comedy on hiatus?

No, The Divine Comedy are on fire! I’m writing my fifty millionth album as we speak. Always writing… nothing better to do…

In May is at The Arches, Glasgow, 15th March 2014.

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Lorna Irvine is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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